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Michael Irvin Keeping the Promise

The Former Dallas Cowboy reflects on success, scandal and salvation, and his undying passion for football and cigars.
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

The cigar was the symbol of a series of promises. At least that was the way Michael Irvin saw it. There he was, the All-Pro wide receiver, the self-proclaimed "Playmaker" on the big-time National Football League dynasty of the '90s, the Dallas Cowboys. After a fallow decade, America's Team had been resurrected, the squeaky-clean, humble piety of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach jettisoned for the brash in-your-face arrogance of coach Jimmy Johnson and his former University of Miami star, the cocky Irvin. As all the pieces fell into place—as the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl in 14 years, then a second, then a third—Irvin basked in the glow of success. He loved the glory and the top-tier perks offered to an All-Pro football player in the Lone Star State. "We knew how the Cowboys did would even affect the Texas economy," says Irvin as he zips through the streets of suburban Dallas in his silver Mercedes SL55. "We were big; the Beatles, the Rat Pack of Texas." • A smooth cigar was one great way to savor that glory. On Sunday nights, with the game still racking his ears and memories of each play ringing through his brain, Irvin would join his Cowboys buddies to decompress at places like the local Ruth's Chris Steak House. "You can't eat," says Irvin. "You're too hyped to get the food down. You need to play it out, let it go, relax and, most of all, be one of the boys." • At first it was Leon Lett, the gregarious defensive end, who offered Irvin a taste of a vanilla cigar. "That was sweet, so delicious," says Irvin.

He and Leon, often joined by their buddy Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys' go-to running back, found the cigars an ideal way to chew over the game.

But even celebration of a battle well fought was secondary to Irvin's pride in having delivered on a promise he'd made years earlier to his father, Walter. Michael was one of 17 kids raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While Michael was in his teens, Walter fell ill with throat and brain cancer. Michael, already starting to prove his prowess as a football star, was the one Walter selected to drive him to his doctor's appointments.

"I'd just gotten my driver's license, so I was just happy to get behind the wheel of our silver Chevy Caprice," says Irvin. "But my dad had something else in mind. He'd talk to me about manhood, and responsibility. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I remember this: One time he tried in our living room to get up, and he couldn't, and he broke his hip. He asked out loud—and he was big, 6 feet, 2 inches, 240 pounds—'How long can I deal with this?' It wasn't the pain he was talking about. It was the pain of having his family see him like this. So he and I would talk, and he said to me, 'You're going to do something great. But you've got to promise me you'll take care of your mother. Promise me that.' And then one day he said, 'I feel like going home on the morning train.' And that night, he died."

Irvin kept the promise. He earned a scholarship to the University of Miami, became an All-American receiver, and then threw himself heart and soul into his pro career. "What made Michael so special was the way he worked," says Troy Aikman, the Cowboys' quarterback from those years. "He practiced every day as if he was going up against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship."

All his life Irvin dreamed of being a famous performer and a superb athlete. With Dallas, in his own loud and diligent way, he'd struck gold in both areas. "Wide receivers are the ones at the end," says Irvin, "so we've got to make noise and work hard to get people to pay attention to us. But when they do, we better make things happen." By 1990, his third season, Irvin ranked on a par with the great Jerry Rice. He also revolutionized the wide receiver position, imposing a new level of physicality to running his patterns. Earning good money, he bought his mother a new house and gratefully assumed the role of family financial caretaker. "You can catch it and take that hit," he says, "or get back to the ghetto."

Back with Lett and Smith after the games, and also occasionally with Aikman, lineman Erik Williams or other teammates, enjoying the sweet taste of the vanilla cigars, Irvin savored how far he had come. " 'Let's be big boys' was the way I thought of it," says Irvin. "Let's have a Cognac and a cigar. To me, that was the ultimate way of being bourgeois—brothers from the ghetto being bourgeois. Leon would try to eat caviar and we'd crack up. Imagine that, raised on collard greens and here we're cooling out with a cigar."

There was time spent making other promises, too. No other sport requires more intricate forms of collaboration than football. "You need everyone to help everyone," says Irvin. "For me to make that catch, the other receiver needs to run his pattern, too, so that the defense is off-balance. I may be the one who makes the grab, but everyone contributes to it. So we'd sit down and get each other to commit to things we'd do during the games—all those little things that add up to great football." As the late hours of Sunday turned into the early hours of Monday, as the smoke wisped its way into the air, Irvin locked himself into one agreement after another. This was what it took to be a champion. This was what it took to succeed. It was all so simple.

Life became more complicated for Michael Irvin on October 10, 1999. That was the day he suffered a career-ending neck injury in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Though he'd always imagined he'd have to be dragged off the field, he'd always thought that was a silly fantasy, and certainly one that wouldn't happen when he was a mere 33 years old. He finished his career with 750 catches and 65 touchdowns. Eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time in 2005, Irvin failed to get voted in, but it's expected he'll make it to the Hall in due time.

Nearly six years after that fateful day, Irvin's sitting in a Dallas seafood restaurant, eating from a bowl of gumbo, sipping water, staggered by how fast fame comes and goes. Over the course of the meal, a few fans politely wave, say hello and wish him well. Irvin is kind to them all. He remembers how he lived for the chance to get in the face of the opposing defensive back, make the big catch and bring the crowd to its feet. "Fans may watch a movie," he says, "but with us, with football, they live a game. You do that in front of millions, it's like nothing you can ever imagine feeling."

And so, he entered the world of another kind of promise—one he was unable to keep. "For 30 years, my drug was football. That was who I was," says Irvin. "And then, just like that, it's gone. You start to wonder: Who am I? What's my purpose? We as men don't want to talk to each other about these kind of feelings." So instead, they find other outlets. If they're wealthy All-Pros used to rock star treatment, they don't always make the best decisions. Even back in his playing days. Irvin was breaking promises to his wife, Sandi (the two were married in 1990). In March 1996, celebrating his 30th birthday, he was arrested on charges of cocaine possession. But as he notes, "The team environment can keep you in check. I'd broken my promises to Leon and Emmitt and Troy, and knew if I did it again, they'd kick my ass."

Once retired, though, who was around to hold Irvin accountable in the way Lett, Smith and Aikman had? "I spiraled," says Irvin. "I was lost. I blew all kinds of money on women and drugs and hotel rooms. And don't forget, when you're the man, you've got a posse, so you're picking up tabs left and right. I'm talking hundreds of thousands of dollars."

There came a night when Irvin made his way home amid a barrage of TV helicopters and cameras. He had no idea how to begin to recount to his wife all the ways he'd lied to her. As soon as he opened the door, she made it all clear. Don't say a word to me, she said. Look in the mirror and make your peace with God.

In early 2001, after giving up what he calls "my main addiction—football," Irvin realized he had to give up the other addictions, too. Irvin found solace in religion. The hours he once devoted to hedonistic pursuits are now often spent with Bishop T. D. Jakes. "He's helped me get inspired, helped me understand myself and just what an obsessive person I can be," says Irvin. "Before I met him, I was knowledgeable but I wasn't spiritually healthy."

When he isn't spending hours reading the Bible, talking with Jakes or working with Sandi on building a new house, Irvin's got a new career that greatly excites him. His chatty manner made him a natural for a television career. However, his off-the-field scandals compelled ESPN to initially reject him as a potential commentator. After seeing Irvin excel in a short stint with FOX, though, ESPN decided it was worth hiring him as a studio analyst. "I love TV," he says. "I love that it's live. That's as close as it comes to the adrenaline of the game. I can talk about football all day."

According to ESPN football analyst Suzy Kolber, a fellow Miami graduate who's worked with Irvin and has known him since she worked for a Cowboys' TV network in the early '90s, "We talked extensively about how to do the job. And he works on it, not just on football but on diction, on language and delivery. He's good, he's outgoing, he comes up with unique lines and phrases that are unique to him."

Earlier this year, Irvin made his film debut in the remake of the 1974 prison football classic, The Longest Yard. Uncertain how to act, he met with Burt Reynolds, who'd starred in the first version and was also in the second. "He told me just to be real, to find it from the heart," says Irvin. Reviews of Irvin's supporting role were generally positive. "The former Dallas Cowboy can act," said Rolling Stone. Since then, he and the movie's star, Adam Sandler, have become pals, and Irvin hopes to find more film work.

But the cornerstones of his life remain football, family and faith. Life has not been easy for this man since he was carried off the field that day in Philadelphia. The cheers have gone; the memories remain. Can anything quite match that feeling he and Smith had when they took the field for their first Super Bowl back in 1993? "Don't let anyone tell you it's just another game," says Irvin. "We walked onto that field, and our knees were shaking. But we won, we got it done." Asked his thoughts on the comment that athletes die twice—the first time when they retire—Irvin nods his head.

These days, Michael Irvin enjoys his cigars in solitude. As a friendly concession to Sandi, he doesn't smoke at home, opting instead for one during his many road trips. Traveling to NFL cities for his ESPN work, staying in hotel rooms by himself, unwinding at the end of a day out on a location shoot, Irvin reflects on the many promises he's kept, the many he's broken and his hopes for the future—in his case, one blessed day at a time.

Oakland-based Joel Drucker, author of the book Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, writes about sports, popular culture and business.

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